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Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education

reviewed by Stanley Aronowitz - 1991

coverTitle: Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education
Author(s): Roger Kimball
Publisher: Ivan R. Dee, Inc., Chicago
ISBN: 1566631955, Pages: 266, Year: 1998
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This book is a spirited defense of the doctrine that until the last two decades has guided the humanities in America: Matthew Arnold’s conception of culture as the best antidote for the corrosive, anarchy-producing effects of industrialism and its attendant evils -mass culture and the tendency, abetted by working-class and other social movements for civilization, to give way to barbarism. Roger Kimball, the managing editor of The New Criterion, perhaps America’s leading conservative literary/political magazine, dolefully informs us that a potpourri of feminists, deconstructivists, Marxists, and black nationalists now constitute a new “establishment” within English and other humanities departments in American universities. Citing numerous examples of representatives of these approaches who have achieved high professorships in leading schools, the book is structured by a series of highly polemical narratives of recent conferences in which some of these figures perform their acts of destruction. Chapter titles such as “The Assault on the Canon,” “Speaking against the Humanities,” and “The New Sophistry” are Kimball’s most telling themes. There is a chapter on the cultural magazine October in which one of its editors, Rosalind Krauss, is depicted as a Marxist guru on the cultural front, an assertion that manages to completely misunderstand

both Krauss’s work and the character of the magazine.

If the task of the humanities is to forge a “common culture” by transmitting to students and the general public “the best that has been thought and said” by great figures in Western literature, the crucial vehicle, according to Kimball, is a consensual canon that exemplifies the values underlying that culture. This theme has been argued forcefully by Allen Bloom and former Secretary of Education William Bennett, who emerge as the key public protagonists of conservative thought in the book. Radicals deny the transcendent character of the traditional canon because its exclusions-notably of women and people of color-mark it as the product of the white male imagination. Moreover, according to critics, the humanities have presented this skewed list as truth, rather than pointing to the ineluctably historically relative and politically interested nature of all art. Kimball argues that these criticisms are directed toward destroying the Western tradition in order to install a highly politicized alternative offered by the constructivists, among others, in the early years of the Bolshevik Revolution. He implies that the recent critique of the humanities aims at nothing less than denying the indisputable achievements of the Great Works in order to impose a critical regime in which the basic categories of “reality,” “truth,” and even “validity” are jettisoned in favor of some kind of murkily stated neo-Marxist nihilism.

Kimball relentlessly repeats this theme in several contexts. Along the way he accuses radicals in the humanities of a series of other sins: The vocabulary of deconstruction, mistakenly identified as the common position of his negative pantheon, is incomprehensible, incoherent, and solipsistic. Kimball dismisses as “absurd” the claim, widely held by structuralists and poststructuralists, that discourse constitutes the object of literary as well as other knowledges. Similarly, Kimball derides Jacques Lacan’s celebrated comment that “the unconscious is structured like a language. “’ We are never informed why this should not be so. Rather, Kimball relies almost wholly on commonsensical propositions: that knowledge refers to a world independent of consciousness and that we can know it through the senses. We are supposed to understand that statements such as Lacan’s cannot possibly be taken seriously except by those acting in bad faith. Many on the Left agree with Kimball, although you would not know it from his enemies list. In one stroke, he manages to obscure the sides in what has become a major debate within the humanities, including philosophy, that realigns conventional ideological camps.

It is hard to know whether Kimball is unaware of the tradition from which these ideas emanate and really believes that Jacques Derrida and his American followers invented them ad hoc or that most French critics and literary theorists take these ideas for granted. The main problem with the book is not its standpoint but its parochialism. For example, he does not seem to know that many Marxists remain loyal to Western high culture and share his disdain for deconstruction, if not for third world literature. There is nothing approaching an honest attempt to inquire as to why the language of contemporary criticism is often difficult. Rather, in concert with many other staunch Arnoldians-Left and Right -Kimball descends to the gratuitous repetition of the need for clear writing as if this value symbolizes the entire debate.

Tenured Radicals contains one powerfully crafted chapter on recent revelations that the leading deconstructive critic Paul De Man wrote anti-Semitic pieces for a Belgian pro-Nazi newspaper during the second world war. In an account that can only be described as a “deconstruction” of the elaborate rationalizations for this history offered by De Man’s friends and followers, Kimball succeeds, not in demonstrating how liberal they really are. De Man’s colleagues at Yale-Geoffrey Hartman and J. Hillis Miller – are portrayed in their most egregious sophistries as they attempt to interpret De Man’s later skepticism as a tacit critique of his own errant youth. Indeed, Kimball’s citations from these regrettable pieces reveal how much the young De Man is enamored of the Great Tradition of European civilization that, in his view, was only marginally tarnished by the Jews. Although all the evidence points to the conclusion that De Man concealed, even falsified his (and for good reason), he paid retribution by tearing down the foundations of the culture he once celebrated.

This could have been a good book if Kimball had done his homework better rather than relying so completely on incentive. But it is great fun to read, especially in the summer when television I marred by endless reruns.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 93 Number 1, 1991, p. 204-207
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 282, Date Accessed: 1/20/2022 12:09:55 PM

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